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Perfect: Jer’s Novel Writer

Perfect: Jer’s Novel Writer

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...

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When something is fully fit for purpose, should you fix it? Most people would say ‘no’. The history of software development seems to be littered with ‘yes’. Take wordprocessors, for example. Back in the day there was WordStar. WordStar was a bit clunky, and required you to use the * key to call up the menus. It didn’t do many of the things you might reasonably want to do, but it was a lot better than an electronic typewriter. After WordStar’s star had really set, WordPerfect and Word came along. On MS-DOS, both of them suffered from not being WYSIWYG, at least, not while you were editing. By suffered, of course, I mean that they were not completely intuitive for formatting letters. You could (and I did) use WordPerfect as a kind of low-grade Desk Top Publishing application, but it was clearly not quite optimised for that.

On the other hand, if you wanted to write a novel, the MS-DOS WordPerfect was pretty much perfect. It didn’t try to distract you with features you didn’t need, didn’t start trying to correct your text while you were writing it, and didn’t involve you in endless font and format choices.

Both Word and WordPerfect moved to Windows versions, and Word got picked up on the Apple Mac. After that, they ‘developed’. By developed I mean that they got more and more complex, offered more and more features, combined some of the attributes of a spreadsheet, a desk top publishing system, a project management system, a reference library, a database manager, and pretty much everything else the programmers thought might be wanted.

As far as writing a novel, though, they’d gone backwards not forwards. As well as the endless distractions of choosing fonts (advice: don’t) and so on, Word in particular attempts to help out by i) saying ‘you seem to be writing a letter!’, and offering to format your novel as a piece of business correspondence ii) changing three asterisks, which novelists use to denote a change of scene, into a bullet point with two asterisks after it and iii) attempting to change dates, such as typing ‘2011’ into today’s date, formatted as approved by Microsoft.
I did wonder about going back to a manual typewriter, but, sadly, I gave my old Imperial away in 1987. There is someone doing a typewriter to USB conversion which looks rather fine, but is a little bit unwieldy.
Enter a group of software applications which take you right back to the glory days of plain wordprocessing. These include Scrivener and Ulysses, but my favourite is Jer’s Novel Writer. Basically, Jer’s Novel Writer is a plain word processor with a minimum of formatting functions (though you can waste your time doing fonts if you really want) designed to make it easy to write long form prose. To do this, it works semantically rather than visually. So, for example, there are highly structured functions for chapters, text sections, or any kind of hierarchical structure you want, but no functions for new page, hyphenation, or any stuff like that. There’s a useful built in database for keeping track of your characters and so on, but that’s as far as that function goes. The margin notes are easy to use, easy to see, and don’t get included when you export your text, and there’s also loose note functions. You can get an update of words in a section instantly by just hovering the mouse, or total words from one menu. Likewise, it will tell you how many pages you’ve written. Most important of all, Jer’s Novel Writer allows you to go into full screen mode where you are not distracted by anything else other than what it is you were writing about.
So how good is it to actually use? Well, since I got it, every piece of long-form prose I’ve written has been on Jer’s Novel Writer. It’s very cheap (and you can haggle if you don’t like the price), though it’s Apple Mac only. There are equivalents out there for Windows.
The problem, of course, is that having created something which is more or less perfect, Jer, the author, as he explains here is beginning to move on to pastures new. To be exact, he’s landed a job at Apple.
Which leaves me wondering: when the versions of Word and WordPerfect expanded from efficient, 340k tiny word processors to be multi-megabyte monsters, was this because the users perpetually demanded more features, or because the only way to keep the programmers happy was to keep giving them more things to do?
Now we’re in Sci-Fi. Kindle, Kinect, iPad, Facetime: 2010, the year when it happened(ish)

Now we’re in Sci-Fi. Kindle, Kinect, iPad, Facetime: 2010, the year when it happened(ish)

Amazon KindleIn 2010, books turned into an electronic form of life, motion controlled gaming moved from a single proprietor low-resolution system to multi-platform, truly hand-held portable computers became the fastest selling electronic device ever, and video calling on a phone, after sixty years of speculation, finally became a reality.

If you go back to [amazon_link id=”058603806X” target=”_blank” ]The Early Asimov[/amazon_link] and to other greats of the Golden Age of science fiction, or even just watch [amazon_link id=”B001S3GDTK” target=”_blank” ]Star Trek, the Original Series[/amazon_link] on one of the CBS FreeSat channels, then you will remember that we have been waiting for these developments for a long time. The virtual book, the video-phone, and all of these things have been staples of the genre since it clawed its way out of [amazon_link id=”0748101969″ target=”_blank” ]Before the Golden Age[/amazon_link] and started being about realistic futures seen through the eyes of scientists, inventors, and those close to them. We knew that these things were coming. Until perhaps ten years ago, most of us didn’t expect them to come in our own lifetimes. 1

I single these four out for 2010 not because they are startling inventions, but because they are not. [amazon_link id=”B004BPKIGQ” target=”_blank” ]Kinect[/amazon_link] is merely the Microsoftisation if the incredibly successful [amazon_link id=”B002W1UDI4″ target=”_blank” ]Nintendo Wii[/amazon_link], albeit with advances and refinements. The iPad is a tablet that actually does the things you expect a tablet to do, as opposed to the previous models from other companies which were useful for everything except tablet computing 2. Facetime requires the same network you need to run Skype video calling, it just does it natively on a purpose-built phone. The Kindle does in your hand what many of us have been doing for years on our laptops — reading books that we either don’t have the time to buy, don’t want to have to carry, or don’t especially want to give shelf space to. But all these devices do successfully (at least in terms of market success) what previous offerings had hinted at.

Kindle — books go virtual

For Amazon, 2010 was the year of the Kindle. Round about May, it looked as though the Kindle was not going to survive the onslaught of the iPad. But Amazon already had a cunning way round that. Amazon’s interest is not so much in selling the Kindle device, although they have been selling very well, thank you very much, but in downloadable content via the Kindle. So, for free, you can Kindle on your iPad, Kindle on your Mac, Kindle on your iPhone, and doubtless on many devices which I don’t own. There have been e-readers before. Barnes and Noble and Sony have their own libraries, and there’s Project Gutenberg which, if it had been around when I was a student, would have meant I could carry on doing primary research right through the night, as opposed to when the library closed at 6pm. It took Amazon, as the world’s largest online bookseller, to put its weight behind a particular model, and to continue to flog it even when it looked like the iPad had eaten their lunch.

Of course, most of the books on Kindle are complete and utter tripe, as are the majority of the free books on iBooks, which has not taken off to anything like the same extent. I bought a ‘book’ about press releases on Kindle, discovered it was a ripped off article from the 1950s, and promptly asked for my 75p back. Which I got. In the words of a very wise man, ‘of the making of books there is no end’, and most of the books that have ever been made really are not worth reading. But, nonetheless, very many are, and very many which have been out of print for years are now available again, this time at the touch of a button.

Kinect

I’m not a big computer gamer. Years ago I wrote a video game called The Frozen Heart, about which I still get sporadic emails. I enjoyed Tomb Raider 1, IV and (to a lesser extent) VI, though the least said about V the soonest mended. My biggest frustration has always been the controls. As a competitive fencer, the thrill of holding a sword in your hand and actually fighting someone dwarfs anything with buttons that you hold in your hand. But Wii, and now Kinect, are beginning to move into a real gaming experience. We are not yet in the Cyberspace virtual reality of [amazon_link id=”0006480411″ target=”_blank” ]Neuromancer[/amazon_link], or the Holodeck of Star Trek TNG and Voyager 3, or even [amazon_link id=”B003819GVC” target=”_blank” ]Minority Report[/amazon_link], but Kinect, Wii, and motion gaming on the iPad and iPhone are beginning to take us there. And, as Microsoft were keen to point out, Kinect sold even faster than the iPad, though, to be strictly accurate, the Kinect accessory for the XBox 360 sold faster than the iPad: complete Kinect equipped XBox systems have been selling rather more slowly.

The iPad

The Geekerati, or, at least, that portion of them that pundits in magazines, are still annoyed about the iPad. I read an article today decrying its lack of USB and lack of a camera, almost exactly the same complaints that were made against it in comments posted by numerous posters in the Guardian back in January.  One commentator wrote: “about as practical to carry around as an etch a sketch”, while another put: “A glorified phone you can’t make calls on, except through Skype, but there’s no webcam.”, while another put:

“No Flash
No USB
No MULTITASKING
Limited to Apple apps

Although they have an official keyboard on their website for $69.99 😉
Afraid this one is going the way of the Cube.”

Incidentally, we still have our Apple Cube, and it’s still great.

But, pace Microsoft and Kinect, the iPad was the fastest selling consumer device ever, has beaten even the most wacky predictions, and now has every other manufacturer rushing to produce something that will at least look like it’s doing the same job.

Why is this?

The Geekerati see it as a cut-down laptop or a blown-up smartphone. Most real people never wanted a laptop at all. We all went out and bought laptops (or had them assigned to us by our employers) because they were more mobile than desktops. We had desktops because there was a certain group of tasks we wanted to accomplish with a computer, in the believes that our lives would be easier, more convenient, richer or more powerful as a result. This is where the real world differs sharply from the geek world. In the geek world, the computer is a thing of beauty and power in itself. People who talk incessantly about how they swapped out the memory, overclocked the processor, replaced the hard drive, and installed the latest video card are horrified by the locked-downness of Apple’s offering. People who want to surf the web, use Facebook, send and receive some emails, do a few spread sheet calculations and watch online video see the world differently.

For them, the future arrived in May 2010.

Facetime

I first used video conferencing in 2000. By the miracle of ISDN 8, we were able to video conference call to Germany and France at the same time. The pictures were small, jerky, and, if you were writing a thriller, ideal for substituting one person for another who looked vaguely similar for the purpose of establishing a false alibi.

Facetime and Skype conferencing are dramatically better in terms of quality than that ISDN 8 service, despite requiring only a fraction of the bandwidth. But the point about Facetime, which, if you hadn’t spotted it, is the iPhone 4’s proprietary video calling, thanks to the face-mounted VGA camera, is that it’s actually on a phone you might purchase for other reasons than going after Facetime. The great conundrum of new methods of connectivity, which doubtless best Marconi with radio, and before that the purveyors of telegraph, and certainly had an impact on technologies such as telex, fax, and Adobe PDF, is that it’s only much use if a lot of other people have it. If you suddenly find yourself in a pickle, and need access to video conferencing technology, then, under the old ISDN 8 method, it’s far too late to think about installing it. Big corporations could include video conferencing in their HQ specifications, and multi-nationals, such as the one I worked for in 2000, could justify the capital cost on half a year’s saved airfares. But, for the ordinary punter, it’s just something you would never get around to acquiring.

Now that the iPhone 4 has a front facing camera, we can expect that virtually all smart phones of the future will include one. Lamentably, this is the way the market works at the moment: ideas stream from Apple into the wider market, but not yet the other way around (though some of the Windows Phone technology looks promising). You probably haven’t made a Facetime (or some other equivalent) call this year, and you may not make many next year. But in 2012, expect a whole new vocabulary and etiquette to be springing up around video calling.

The future has finally arrived.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Seriously — you really think you saw them coming ten years ago? Do you remember what tablet computers were like then — heavy as bricks and about as user friendly, and those mobile phones with fiddly menus which, if you were lucky, allowed you to play ‘Snakes’ while waiting for your Gate to open at Heathrow?
  2. They made excellent paper-weights, and, when fully opened, reasonably successful keyboard and mouse driven laptops
  3. I always wondered why, with such a holodeck, anyone would ever bother to get out and do anything else
The best cup of coffee I ever tasted

The best cup of coffee I ever tasted

The best cup of coffee I ever tasted

Coffee at Within Reach, Warwick

The best cup of coffee I ever tasted was at my aunt’s house. We stopped by on the way somewhere. At the time my aunt was running an extremely upmarket restaurant, and that cup of coffee was the best I ever had.

Until today.

Today I went to Within Reach in the Market Place, Warwick. It was recommended to me by a friend who loved coffee.

The first thing I noticed (after the Lanarkshire 1 accent of the man who served the coffee) was that the crema on the cappuccino was exactly matched by the colour of the cup, and in turn beautifully offset by the colour of the table.

Then I tasted it. Made with hot milk, and stronger than any cappuccino I had ever tasted, it was the beyond-ideal combination of hotness, passionately strong taste, rich aroma and piquant after-taste. It actually took me almost half an hour to drink, and it was still hot when I was finishing it. For the princely sum of £2.25, this is coffee heaven for the coffaholic.

I mentioned my response to the waiter. “We try to do our best”, he said. “We make it stronger than other people.” Within Reach buys its coffee from a collective in the south-west called Origin Coffee. Origin is even more serious about coffee than Roast and Post, although the prices also reflect this. While Roast and Post urges you to keep coffee in the freezer once roasted to preserve the flavour, Origin goes one better saying “All of our coffee’s are roasted to order on Thursday, so please order before midnight on Wednesday to start enjoying your coffee by the weekend.”

If you’re not in Warwick, but are in Alcester, an extraordinarily good cup of coffee is to be had at VenueXpresso. Coming from the Roast and Post stable, the coffee isn’t quite as strong as at Within Reach, though that may be a good thing if you plan to drink it more than about once a week (I’m still buzzing from the Within Reach cup, six hours later).

In Tewkesbury, my vote goes to 1471, an extraordinary deli and coffee shop which has about enough seats for four people, serves beautiful coffee, and amazing breakfast pastries. They also have the most complete selection of cheeses I’ve ever seen.

In Caracas, my vote goes to Cafe Marron. This is not a place to drink coffee, but a way to make it (not to be confused with the plant called Cafe Marron). Marron is strong with a smallish amount of milk, as opposed to Leche, which is very milky. All the coffee I ever had in Caracas was excellent. Any Venezuelan will tell you that coffee in Venezuela is better than anywhere else in the world. I understand Colombians make the same claim.

Finally, if you’re in Marlcliff, we serve a pretty serious cup of coffee ourselves, based on Cafe Marron, courtesy of Roast and Post and a Gaggia.

Enjoy coffee responsibly!

Show 1 footnote

  1. I originally thought it was Geordie
What iThings have taught the tech world

What iThings have taught the tech world

iPad with BBC news app

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, the company was in the doldrums headed for its last legs. 1996 was, incidentally, the year we bought our first Mac, a second-hand Mac II cxi with 8 MB of memory, running System 7 in Dutch.

His first actions, on becoming interim CEO, were to cancel a number of interesting but ultimately clumsy diversions including the ill-fated Newton. But the new thing which came to symbolise the Steve Jobs turnaround was the launch of the original iMac, which, at the time, looked rather like an elaborate space helmet. Following on from the iMac was a laptop version, which to my mind looked like a bizarre toilet seat.

After (but still during) the iMac came the iPod, and after the iPod the iPhone, and after the iPhone the iPad. Each has had its own substantial impact on the tech market, and each has been (though we so-quickly forget) pre-derided by the Applephobic.

I don’t believe that everything Apple does is great (System 7.5.5 was dreadful, and System 8.6 wasn’t much better, the Apple Camera was simply daft, and the 1996 pre-iMac all-in-ones were both ugly and unreliable), but I do think there are some important lessons for technowatchers, or the ‘Geekerati’ to learn, most of which run against the grain of Geekocracy, and were the principal reasons why iThings have always been derided before they became imitated.

The iMac: style is substance

People who don’t like Apple have traditionally claimed that it is all marketing hype over reality, style over substance. They do, of course, claim this while simultaneously claiming that Macs and their ilk are a minority pursuit, which slightly begs the question. Leaving behind the way in which graphical user interfaces — first widely available on the Mac — have driven out all forms of command-line interface, since that is all ancient history now, the key learning from the iMac is that style is substance. Until the iMac, computers were utterly dull. Macs were marginally less dull than Windows PCs, in the sense that they were a sort of brightish near-white instead of pure beige, but the received wisdom was that computers were office machines and should look officey. The entire tech industry knew that the consumer market was absolutely crucial, and yet computers continued to be manufactured on the design principle of ‘give no offence’, rather than to make them exciting. Since the original iMac, even the dullest computers (ie, those made by Dell) have been spruced up with curved cases and non-beige colouring.

OS X — abandoning your past is sometimes necessary

I give this one a small title because it doesn’t quite fit my iThings theme. But [amazon_link id=”B001AMHWP8″ target=”_blank” ]OS X [/amazon_link] came between the iMac and the launch of the iPod, and it is hugely significant. From the dawn of personal computers, backward compatibility has always been one of the biggest headaches for designers, programmers and system architects alike. Windows endured the legacy of MS-DOS for years. Apple persevered with the increasingly ungainly successors to System 7, retaining the legacy of the original Mac OS. OS X was a radical departure. Replacing the near-sacred Mac OS with something built on UNIX, and simultaneously signalling that backwards compatibility was, if not a thing of the past, something which would only ever be retained transitionally.

The iPod — benefits rather than features

Apple did not invent the MP3 player. That honour belongs to Creative, they of the SoundBlaster PC sound card fame. But Apple took what was essentially a geeky development and made it the iconic successor to Sony’s Walkman, a device which was increasingly past its sell by date and had failed to make the transition to CD in the popular imagination. Certainly in the UK,  the iPod advertising campaign was Apple’s first really substantial foray into sustained mass marketing, despite some strong success with the iMac. Today’s iPods bear little resemblance to the original iPod, which seems bulky and retro by comparison. Nonetheless, the iconic white headphones and the corresponding silhouette images with the Myriad Pro font are still hammering home the brand.

I remember very well the ire that the iPod caused among the geekerati: I had it explained to me several times that Apple did not ‘deserve’ success with the iPod, because the invention belonged to Creative. But Creative never had the vision to push their product hard at the mass market, rather than as something you might pick up in Maplin or PC World. Creative essentially regarded their MP3 player as a technology device, aimed at early adopters of technology. Apple saw the iPod as a music device, aimed at everyone who enjoyed music. And that is a much larger group than the tech early adopters.

Everyone who has ever studied marketing knows that products should be marketed on their benefits rather than their features. But tech companies had stubbornly ignored this, peppering their literature with MHz, MB, bus-bandwidth and protocol support for as long as they have been producing literature. Apple’s focus on benefits (‘you can play your own music whereever you are’) rather than features has probably caused more annoyance among the technocracy than anything else. But that, ultimately, was the difference between the iPod and its MP3 predecessors.

The iPhone — no compromise

Before the iPhone came out I had a Motorola KRZR. It had a camera which never produced a worthwhile picture. It was hard to connect to a computer. And I never managed to set up the onboard email and web, despite having had little problem with the Sony Ericsson I had before, on the same contract. I was talking about the KRZR, and my expectation of getting an iPhone when it came out, with someone at work, when someone else who I didn’t know at all stepped up and poured forth what was essentially a can of vitriol on the prospective iPhone and all the works of Apple. I have to say I was slightly taken aback. Over the months that followed, though, I got used to owners of Nokia smartphones taking the time out to tell me how much better their phone was than the iPhone, with a bigger camera, more of this, more of that, and a physical keyboard.

Remember that the original iPhone did not have apps (at least not in the current sense). What it did have was a very good email system, and a very good web-browser, and a degree of touch control previously unheard of. As someone pointed out at the time, the difference between the iPhone and all previous smartphones was that everything that came before it was a compromise — useability versus functionality versus portability. The iPhone wasn’t. Apple was not willing to include features which did not work perfectly. Hence, no cut and paste (originally), no multi-tasking, and limitations on other features. The point was that Apple was gambling on their belief that consumers wanted stuff that worked exactly as you expected it to, rather than demanding higher specification and more features than competing products.

The iDeriders scoffed in mockery at the iPhone’s shortcomings, but, today, every smartphone on the market including those made by Blackberry owes substantially to the iPhone’s design and feature-philosophy. For a while, every new smartphone was trumpeted as the ‘iPhone killer’. Now the phrase is never used. Although the market is beginning to flood with cheap (and sometimes, on contract, free) Android phones, no other device has ever managed to gain the traction in the market place or the iconic (or iConic) status that the iPhone possesses.

The iPad — no existing market? No problem

We were told shortly before the [amazon_link id=”B003P5AOBW” target=”_blank” ]iPad[/amazon_link]’s launch by many (including many who should have known better) that there was no market for this device which sat inconveniently between smartphones and netbooks. The iPad quickly became (and remains) the fastest selling stand-alone technology device in history1. Until the iPad, virtually every computing or communications device brought to the mass market was an evolution of things that had gone before and were already successful. The iPad was a breakaway device, occupying a form factor which had not previously been seen in a keyboard-less device, and which had been wildly unsuccessful in the previous tablet machines running Windows for tablets. The iDeriders claimed that it was too big for a smartphone, and didn’t even make calls or have a camera, and that it was too underpowered with a mobile-phone OS that could not provide the functionality needed for a computer.

Apple, of course, were banking on an entirely new set of user-requirements which would be defined by the A5+ sized device, rather than an evolution of previous requirements. Apps such as Flipboard, the now superseded Penultimate and iBooks demonstrated almost immediately what the new format could do that no other device had previously done, and a flood of successors followed.

If there is perhaps one thing which tech companies have failed to learn from Apple’s success is that consumers do not want to buy technology. Rather, they want to buy a better lifestyle. The cool-factor of association with Apple products (as someone once pointed out, the worst thing about owning a Microsoft Zune was explaining to people why you didn’t have an iPod), the convenience of stuff that consistently did what it was supposed to do, interestingly and easily, rather than inconsistently did more things (like turn by turn navigation that as often as not crashed en route), and a feature set that revolved around what users actually wanted, rather than the leading edge of what the technology could now offer… these are the things which marketeers in pretty much every other market category got right years ago. Apple’s genius is not that they have invented a new kind of marketing, but that they have applied the bread and butter marketing and branding lessons from other industries to a technology sector which had so long prided itself on an obstinate nerdishness.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The Microsoft Kinekt has been trumpeted as selling faster than the iPad, but it’s really just an accessory for the XBox 360

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